by Anabel Martinez
photography by Darcelle Jones-Wesley
A carnivorous creature with two long, sharp canine teeth projecting out of its mouth posed in a vicious stance, ready to pounce on prey glares back at visitors in the University of La Verne Abraham Campus Center. But do not worry, the glare is from the glass display case and Smiley is all bones at more than 10,000 years old. But just imagine what Smiley was like when he was alive. He lived in Los Angeles, in the high rent district of Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. It was cold all the time. The ice age gripped the Earth. He was a vicious predator, feeding on vulnerable mammals. He growled, purred and pounced on prey. He had fur and a short bobtail. And he is dead, killed when he got greedy and entered a shallow lake to go after trapped prey. He quickly discovered that the prey was an easy catch because it was stuck. And now, he too was stuck in gooey tar.
The next person to ever see Smiley was a zoologist who was a high school teacher. James Z. Gilbert, taught a high school biology class at Los Angeles High School at the time and recovered Smiley’s bones from the La Brea Tar Pits with the help of his students. The boys in the class helped dig up the bones while the girls were responsible for classifying and cleaning the tar off his bones. Smiley was finally free. Gilbert was a minister of the Church of the Brethren and shared the wealth of his discoveries, donating Smiley to Church of the Brethren run Lordsburg College in 1916.
Smiley made history in a couple ways. Today, the University of La Verne holds one of five Saber Toothed skeletons known to exist from the Los Angeles location. And Gilbert, “through his groundbreaking Los Angeles tar pit find, was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the founding of the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art, which is today the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County,” says the Museum’s web site. It adds, “Gilbert’s Academy collections were some of the first specimens in the new museum in 1911, and mounted skeletons from Rancho La Brea were among the first displays in the museum when it opened in 1913.” Prominently displayed in the museum is a commemorative plaque with Gilbert’s name on it, citing this information.
During 2021, Smiley marked 125 years at the University of La Verne. Out of sight for decades behind closed doors, Smiley, a fully articulated Saber Toothed Cat skeleton, now stands life-like in a glass case on the second floor of the ULV Abraham Campus Center, watching over the hundreds of students and faculty members coming in and out of the building that is at the heart of the University of La Verne campus. October 2021 marked the fifth year since Smiley found his permanent display home on the campus.
Smiley is one of more than 100,000 artifacts in the University of La Verne Cultural and Natural History Collections. More than 65 million years of history are captured in its Jaeger House. Most of the artifacts are stored here—beautiful textiles from the 1800s, ancient tools used in China, rare Native American woven baskets. Some of these artifacts are shown in temporary exhibits. Smiley is the exception. “Because he was amazing. I may not have known his full history at the time, but I knew he was unique,” says Felicia Beardsley, director of the Cultural and Natural History Collections and professor of anthropology. “He grabbed the attention of everyone who entered that room… He overshadowed everything.”
The question was, “Where do we display him?” Beardsley says originally she wanted to put Smiley in the Wilson Library because it is a central place on campus, but the idea was turned down because there was not a good spot for him.
Then the then new Abraham Campus Center opened, and Jim Brooks, director of the Campus Center, found a place for him on the second floor where he could be perfectly seen from both inside and outside the building. His display case, a vitrine, was a custom-made order.
There Smiley poses as the University of La Verne’s oldest “Leopard.”
J.Z. Gilbert figured out how to articulate the Saber Tooth on his own. In front of him was a jigsaw puzzle of bones. All sorts of ancient animal bones were stirred in the tar mix. Nevertheless, Gilbert, a pioneer paleontologist, came remarkably close to assembling the skeleton into a saber toothed cat form that researchers now know is spot on correct, save one detail. The tail bones he placed onto Smiley are that of a dire wolf, not a saber toothed cat.
Gilbert, figured that Smiley had a long cat-like modern tail. The Dire Wolf bones were in the mix, so it was an easy decision. A few years later, after the skeleton was articulated, other species’ bones, including dire wolves, were discovered at the tar pits, and with better scientific knowledge over time, it was discovered that Saber Tooths had bobbed tails, and that an incorrect tail was attached to Smiley. “These are guys who thought, ‘Well, he’s a cat like any cat, right? He should be part of the overall giant cat family so he must have a long tail. Right?’” Beardsley says.
Anne Collier, Cultural and Natural History Collections curator, voiced to keep the tail. “I fought to keep that tail because we relate to imperfect people. We don’t relate to perfect people,” Collier says. Smiley’s tail is a product of the mistakes that are made during the learning process. “We’ve all had to learn. We’re surrounded by professors on campus. You go to these people for expert advice. Then you look at our cat. That was an expert who put Smiley together,” Collier says. “It shows you learn to become the expert, and that’s the beauty of Smiley.”
Even the installation process of placing Smiley in the Campus Center was a learning experience for everyone involved. Many different departments and people helped bring Smiley into his new home in 2016. With Beardsley and Collier, the team from facilities, the display case company, the campus center manager, and many others contributed on the big day. Beardsley says facilities even went above and beyond to install special non heat-generating lights to be pointed directly at Smiley and to give him the perfect spotlight. “It makes him a learning experience, when you have to put together something that you have no idea what it looks like, and you just have a lot of bones and a lot of fragments,” Beardsley says. “It’s like putting together a puzzle, even though the pieces might be somewhat in place.”
So, there he resides, finally in full view in the University’s Campus Center. Smiley, assigned a diminutive name that belies his true feared power of successfully hunting mammoths and mastodons and ruling over Los Angeles. But in death as in life, he is still a show stopper, an animal who comes to us from another time but is finally in his right place at the University of La Verne. ■